When union organizer Maria Elena Durazo took a job with the hotel and restaurant workers union six years ago, she found a union at war with itself.
The long-entrenched Anglo administrators were so out of touch with their predominantly Latino rank-and-file membership that when the members asked for Spanish translation of union meetings, their leaders told them to "learn English." The open animosity between union members and officials bordered on "hatred," she said.
Durazo never doubted that she would eventually help oust the old guard, but said she did not imagine that the change would come so swiftly or that she would end up at the helm of the union--Los Angeles' 13,000-member Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11.
One of the few Latinas to head a major union local in the country, Durazo, 36, is a heroine to the waiters, busboys, cooks and maids who elected her president recently with 85% of the vote.
Calling Durazo's election "the most dramatic emergence of (Latino) union leadership," William Robertson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, predicted that "this will happen with other unions as their membership becomes more immigrant. It will be a natural consequence."
Moreover, the potential for increased unionization in industries with large immigrant work forces has grown dramatically in the region, as hundreds of thousands of people have gained legal status under the government's amnesty program, according to labor leaders.
"Through organizing we've given hope back to the members," Durazo said. "They tell me that now they are again looked upon as human beings instead of as 'stupid wetbacks' who anybody can treat anyway they want."
Durazo's victory was the culmination of a sometimes frustrating, sometimes bruising battle that resulted in the local's parent union placing it in trusteeship for two years. The campaign also pitted Latino community allies against each other in what some characterized as "a family feud."
Pokes Fun at Life
The Mexican sayings or dichos that pepper Durazo's English and poke fun at life's ironies spring from such human drama.
The woman who has spent most of her life battling on behalf of immigrants is now accused by a small but vociferous group of former supporters of "selling out."
Durazo also raised a few eyebrows last fall when she married Miguel Contreras, the international union representative sent to administer the local during the trusteeship. For her part, Durazo said she should be judged on her performance, not her choice of a husband.
Noting that a new labor contract with the city's biggest hotels includes protections for illegal aliens and opportunities for promotions, Durazo said that "now workers have a chance to move ahead and progress, which is why they came to this country in the first place." Up to 70% of the union's members are Latinos.
The daughter of Mexican immigrant field workers, Durazo has not forgotten her roots. Like her husband, she is a product of the Chicano movement of the 1970s. Later, as a single mother working her way through Los Angeles' People's College of Law, Durazo was a leader in a community organization advocating immigrant rights when--even among Latinos--few were taking such positions.
In 1979, when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union hired her as an organizer, she recalled, she was glad to get paid for what she had been doing for free on the streets.
"I'd go make house calls, and it would all come back to me," she said, recalling the images of her own childhood: the cramped living quarters too small for her family; sleeping with her brothers and sisters in her father's pick-up truck; never enough money to get ahead, despite the long hours in the fields. And the growers, like the designer label manufacturers in the city, were the only ones who ever got rich.
Durazo eventually went to work as a law clerk for Abe Levy, a leading labor lawyer who represented Local 11 and later got her the union job.
Ironically, Levy's firm later defended Local 11 leaders against a suit brought by rank-and-file members over the issue of conducting bilingual meetings. The workers won the suit in a precedent-setting federal appeals court decision two years ago. But, in another ironic twist, Durazo's new administration--which is bilingual--was left with the nearly $200,000-bill in legal fees incurred by its predecessor.
Not only were the union's aging leaders--many of them retired members--out of touch with the membership, but they had also failed to keep abreast of changes in the industry, Durazo said.
During the 23-year tenure of former union leader Andrew (Scotty) Allan, not only did the union lose members by the thousands, but wages and benefits for workers slipped well below those in other major cities, Durazo said.